Scott Spencer's novel of close encounters

April 16, 1995|By John E. McIntyre

"Men in Black," by Scott Spencer. 321 pages. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. $24

Sam Holland aspires to be a serious novelist, but he writes junk for money. His latest, "Visitors from Above," a potboiler about UFOs, has touched off a freakish enthusiasm among readers and is about to make him rich.

Wealth and fame come awkwardly. Holland is ashamed of the book, which he wrote under the pseudonym John Retcliffe. Tensions with his wife, Olivia, have tipped him into an affair of some months with a woman he met while writing the UFO book. His adolescent son, Michael, has discovered a letter from the woman and is acting out his rage and resentment at his father.

Scott Spencer, the author of "Endless Love," gives us as his protagonist, a man in his 40s who has made a mess of his life. Sam Holland likes to quote Dante: "Midway in our life's journey, I went astray from the straight road and awoke to find myself in a dark wood."

What is odd is that all of this is not terribly interesting. It should be. We have the affair and vengeful bitterness of Nadia, his former lover. We have the son's running away from his family. We have the author's book tour under the assumed name. We have some trenchant passages, among them the snotty observations about the audience for the UFO book:

"No, my readers had casts on their feet, Ace bandages on their ankles, patches on their eyes; they received radio signals through the fillings in their teeth; they needed to lose weight, gargle; they had lost their meager inheritances on pyramid schemes; they wouldn't mind selling you mail-order shoes or Amway kitchen cleansers . . . they tested their cellars for radon; they called the Culligan Man; they watched the Christian Broadcasting System . . . they lived near electric-power-line towers the size of the Washington Monument; they had guns."

Part of the unsatisfactoriness of the novel comes from the narrative structure. Holland tells his story in sequences of first-person chapters broken up by third-person narratives from the point of view of Olivia or Michael. This gives us a complete narrative but hinders identification with the chapters.

The novel also abounds in metaphors and flights of fancy writing studded as thickly as cloves in a baked ham. Many work, but many more are either silly or distracting, as the image of Olivia from the first page: "Her loins presented themselves to me, scalding."

And then there are the Men in Black, "intergalactic disinformation specialists" who circulate among us to stifle stories of UFO encounters. As Sam Holland plunges ever deeper into his dark wood, men in black cluster ever more thickly around him. I may be too dim to discern the subtle pattern they create, but they seem to me to be largely arbitrary, along with the sequence of hastily sketched actions involving Sam, Olivia, Michael and Nadia that bring the plot to a somewhat truncated end.

Men of 40, stay out of the woods.

John McIntyre has been a copy editor for the past 15 years. He is a deputy chief of The Sun's copy desk. He earned degrees in English from Michigan State University and Syracuse University.

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